A sign at the main entrance of Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono advises that face coverings are required in the building. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The start of a new school year punctuated by COVID-19 cases and a large number of young students having to quarantine has school leaders in Orono rethinking plans for a school year most hoped would be closer to normal.

At a Wednesday night school board meeting, board members and administrators discussed whether they needed to determine a threshold for shifting an entire school to remote learning, as well as the school district’s arrangements for teaching kids in quarantine at home.

The board meeting followed announcements earlier in the week that five cases at Asa Adams Elementary School had sent 28 students into quarantine. Another case was reported at Orono Middle School, though no close contacts had to quarantine as a result. Orono, which already required universal mask-wearing indoors, reinstituted a mask requirement at recess in response.

Schools throughout the Bangor area have started reporting large numbers of cases as the new school year has gotten underway. On Thursday, the Hermon School Department said students in grades 5-12 would shift to remote learning starting Monday and remain remote for at least a week. Schools in Bangor have reported individual COVID-19 cases, and Hampden Academy currently has 12 active COVID-19 cases, with 27 students in quarantine.

“I think we’re all aware that the opening week was very active for COVID cases,” Superintendent Meredith Higgins said. “To have five cases at Asa as we open the year was significant. I know it felt significant for all of us compared to last year.”

Last year, the school year began amid lower case levels in Penobscot County and across Maine. Students also split their time between remote and in-person learning. The impact of COVID-19 cases then was most pronounced among middle- and high-school students.

That hasn’t been the case in Orono so far this school year, however. While vaccinations can prevent many students and staff from having to quarantine if someone tests positive for COVID-19, elementary-age students are ineligible to be vaccinated. At least 95 percent of Orono students eligible to be vaccinated — those 12 and older — have received at least one shot, according to state data, putting the town’s schools in the top tier statewide.

Member Beth Hufnagel said Orono’s school board needs to start considering a threshold for canceling in-person classes and shifting to remote learning.

“That’s something I’m wondering about,” she said. “I don’t want us to have to call an emergency meeting because we haven’t talked about this yet.”

Last year, a school-wide shift to remote learning largely depended on the number of available staff. But that won’t be the challenge this year, as the vaccine is available to school staff, Higgins said.

“Personally, I think it would take a pretty extreme situation for us to shift to full remote, but I don’t know what that is, though,” Higgins said.

But parents are growing more concerned as large numbers of students have to quarantine and participate again in remote learning, Hufnagel said.

This past week forced the school district to refine its approach to remote learning for students in quarantine, said Higgins and Meredith Diamond, the district’s director of curriculum.

“We did not anticipate the numbers in quarantine at Asa that we have had, and we’re trying to be responsive with respect to providing consensus-driven, clear guidance about how we want to support student learning when they can’t be in the classroom,” she said.

Some on the board wondered if the same sort of remote learning for students in quarantine could be available to students whose families don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school.

The board didn’t decide on any changes Wednesday night, though Higgins said the beginning of the school district’s pooled testing program should help schools more proactively identify cases before COVID-19 starts spreading.

“I think we’re going to reveal positive cases,” she said. “I firmly believe that it’s going to help us eliminate cases before people are symptomatic and spreading COVID.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...